When I would drive to the University of Georgia in high school, I would tune my radio to 90.5. When the static gave way to endless funk jams and old school hip hop, I knew I was nearly in Athens. The same progression probably plays out for all-night truckers, Poughkeepsiens and Vassar students (albeit some) who tune in to WVKR, Vassar’s independent radio station, an important creative nucleus for any music community centered around a college.
Alex Azuelos ’20 and Laura Zapien ’20 channel their imaginative energies, hard work and love to broadcast on 3,000-watt airwaves. WVKR’s time slots are busy with niche shows. So to secure a slot, you really have to bring a fresh idea. “When they interview, usually the shows have to be kind of bizarre for them to stand out … The more niche, the weirder, the more we like it,” explained Zapien. WVKR embodies that idiosyncratic Vassar spirit.
Zapien’s show, called “El Puente,” fits the criterion of not fitting in. For an hour on Thursday evenings, you won’t hear any English over the airwaves. She plays Spanish rock and pop, while emceeing the show in Spanish, too. “Being able to come in, speak in Spanish and play our music means so much to me,” said Zapien.
If you think niche shows require niche audiences, think again. Zapien gushed about a local truck driver named Bob Green, who donated to every show on air for a week: “Bob has called my show, which is all Latin. He says, ‘I don’t understand any of the words, but it all sounds great! He loves the station.” Azuelos affirmed, “We love Bob too.”
Besides Bob Green, Frank Carbin also supports Zapien and Azuelos. What started as a volunteering gig 30 years ago has blossomed into a long-time show, which Corbin says features “tunes for geezers,” and a job as WVKR’s archivist. On his devotion to Vassar’s independent radio station, Carbin commented, “There are 168 hours of air you have to fill in a week. At other stations you have to look for DJs that have to pedal and promote things. WVKR doesn’t have to do that. Matter of fact they shouldn’t.”
That being said, WVKR still needs money to maintain air time. “It’s stressful. If we don’t raise enough money, we won’t be able to pay [licensing fees]. Then we won’t be able to stay on-air, and then we’re technically breaking the law. Because we have a license with the FCC to where we have to broadcast on our airwaves,” Azuelos lamented.
Conversely, raising money means drawing on large time commitments by executive board members, volunteers and DJs. Azuelos broke down the numbers: “The volunteers have to stay throughout the whole show. Our exec staff have done 17 hours or more each to cover 24/7 fundraisers…From 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.”
Money matters rely heavily on the station’s communal ties and outreach. WVKR was in a pinch last year when poor communication and weather hampered WVKR’s ability to stay on-air, run pledge drives and pay local DJs. However, the community has proven resilient. WVKR still raised over $24,000, and Azuelos was optimistic that their repaired relationships wouldn’t damage future fundraising efforts. WVKR has already raised as much as last year, and Zapien and Azuelos expect to add another $1,000 to the piggy bank very soon. With the funds in place, WVKR secures another year on the airways.
The nature of any organization in college is helplessly cyclical. New students come in, learn the ropes, create their legacy and depart soon thereafter. The name may not change, but every four years you have a new entity. In a sense, WVKR has been reborn 10 times over the 40 years it’s been on the air (not including Frank Carbin). “I think it’s funny,” mused Zapien, “because it’s a legit radio station that’s been on many years and it relies on these Vassar students to have it together every year.” Some things have changed, like the fact that the station now webcasts via the internet to an audience around the world.
The time and love that the staff put into running WVKR shouldn’t go unnoticed. And it doesn’t, in Poughkeepsie at least. But when I asked Eleanor Carter ’22, an executive board member with her own show, whether many Vassar students listen, I got a resounding “No.”
For a student body that prides itself on quirkiness and artsiness, and often bemoans the futile relationship that its institution has with the local community, it is genuinely surprising how under-appreciated an artistic and connected org like WVKR is.
There is a spirited, historic recourse on campus. It’s not hard to find. Just tune in.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that WVKR pays some DJs. All DJs at WVKR are volunteers.]